The 1945 SITREP
Tangible evidence supports the existence of the Electra in Papua New Guinea. As previously disclosed, the aircraft wreckage was found on the afternoon of 17 April 1945. Warrant Officer Keith Nurse pulled a metal tag off the engine mount tubing of the detached engine that lay on the jungle floor. The situation report for 19 April 1945 shows that Patrol A1 (of the 11th Infantry Battalion) turned in “A/C plates.”
The situation report or SITREP 64 (on Message Form) of 19 April was uncovered in the Australian War Memorial archives in recent years. It clearly indicates Patrol A1 found and turned-in aircraft “plates” as seen in the notation “A/C plates.” Other signals (messages) of the period refer to aircraft as “A/C” or “a/c” as in “Beaufort A/C will carry out anti-malarial spraying.” The words “plates” can be used interchangeably with “metal tags” as described by the patrol veterans. The independently-maintained evidence unequivocally confirms that an aircraft wreck was uncovered during the Patrol A1 duration in April 1945.
The 1945 Map
Like all military units, the 11th Battalion and subunits (companies/platoons) used maps to plan, plot and record their military activities while in the field. The 11th Battalion, “D” Company map of Patrol A1 contained some interesting information written in indelible pencil in the lower margin.
The map handwriting reads:
GI 1009 Seret ref: 600 H/P. S3H/1 C/N1055 [24/5/45]
Sitrep D Coy Patrol Al
see specil sitreps 58, 59,61, 63, [63A] att. Capt. Mott.
The map writing means (starting down the left side):
“GI” means General Staff Intelligence Section.
“1009” was the Operational Order Number from the command headquarters for the patrol to be carried out.
We see the first of two spelling errors: “seret” is obviously “Secret.”
“Sitrep” stands for Situation Report.
“D Coy” stands for “D” Company of the 11th Australian Infantry Battalion.
“Patrol A1” was the code number of the patrol – actually the first patrol for this unit.
“see specil sitreps” is “see special Situation Reports” with “special” misspelled. This notation references the textual reports that this map was keyed to.
“58,” was the contacting patrol departure signal SITREP sent at 1500 hours (3:00 pm) on 16th April. The original document shows that this signal was originally intended to be sent at 0700 hours or 0800 hours.
“59,” was the contacting patrol comprehensive report after they handed over the radio to the A1 Patrol on 16 April. This message was sent at 1500 hours on 16th April.
“61” was the fact that there was no further information from Patrol A1 after their report in by radio on the evening of the 17th April. This signal sent at 1800 hours on 17th April.
“63” was the erroneous report that Patrol A1 had been fired on the evening of 17 April when in fact it had been the afternoon of 15 April. This message was sent at 0700 hours on 19 April well after Patrol A1 had returned to base on the evening of April 18th.
“[63A]” is an Annex report and likely describes the wrecked aircraft find. We have not yet been able to find this SITREP.
“att. Capt. Mott.” is referring to Captain John Wesley Mott. As previously noted he was a Divisional Headquarters Staff Officer, Head Topographer (map maker). Captain Mott had a significant interest as to where the Patrol A1 had been.
Moving to the upper right-hand notation:
“ref:” means reference:.
“600 H/P.” is 600 horsepower.
“S3H/1” translates to an engine designator “Pratt & Whitney R-1340 S3H1.” Pratt & Whitney is, of course, the aircraft engine builder. R-1340 S3H1 is the engine model with S3H1 specifically designating it as a civilian version.
“C/N1055” is the most important piece of this string of information. As written, it indicates aircraft construction number 1055 or aircraft model 10, 55th airframe built. Earhart’s Electra was a Model 10, and it was the 55th airframe. A popular misattribution of this detail will be discussed later.
“[24/5/45]” is simply 24 May 1945. This date probably indicates the date of the “ref:” or reference line. It also coincides with time when the members of the patrol recalled hearing from a staff officer that the wreckage was not one of the American military’s engines/aircraft.
The provenance of the map is good. The map had been in possession of a member of the 11th Battalion since 1945 although the handwritten note at the bottom was not uncovered until 1994. The map edition, time, notation and textual structure are unfailingly genuine in every respect including the misspellings. The patrol SITREP numbers match known reports, and Captain Mott was a distinct figure with an extraordinary influence at Wide Bay at the time. We’ll investigate the happenstance to its secrets shortly.
The Metal Tag
The metal tag, or its content, remains filed away in an unknown archives either in Australia or America…we hope. The tag (or plate) was furnished to 11th Battalion Headquarters and likely was carried to the 13th Infantry Brigade Headquarters for further movement up the command chain. The rapidity of a return answer back – “…not one of ours…” – to the 11th Battalion overwhelmingly suggests the notation on the tag was transmitted in message form within Australian message traffic and/or American networks. And of course would explain the notation on the previously discussed map. The actual metal tag was likely couriered with official mail in the Australian and American systems with the 5th US Air Force being the final stop as one of the primary investigators of aircraft losses in their Area of Operations. However, the 5th Air Force had left New Guinea at that time.
The Veterans Wonder
In 1990, Don Angwin, the ex-Corporal who was in the leading section on Patrol A1 and first saw the engine, was watching television and saw a programme concerning Amelia Earhart and that her Electra aircraft had been powered by Wasp engines. He wondered if the wreckage could be that of the Electra as he remembered that they were told they had found a “Wasp” engine and not a US military aircraft.
He posed the question to the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) at their base at RAAF Station Pearce in Western Australia. The base put him in contact with the RAAF Historian at the old RAAF airfield at Point Cook in Victoria. The historian, an ex-Wing Commander named James de Bomford, considered the possibility and replied that “Yes, it could possibly be Earhart’s” and did send Angwin some detail of the Earhart Electra. Angwin managed to get the story published in the “West Australian” newspaper and wrote to the Smithsonian in Washington with the enclosed article to garner additional interest. The Smithsonian replied in the negative. In mid-1993 an expedition was formed comprising of some ex-R.A.A.F. servicemen who went into the jungle to a site in the Wide Bay area with negative results.
In late 1993 in a chance meeting in Perth, Australia, between Angwin and the former company clerk from the same unit, named Len Willoughby, resulted in the previously described 1945 wartime map being sent by Len to Angwin. The clerk had rescued the map from a map case on a pile of discarded equipment that was intended to be burnt as the unit was to leave New Guinea and return to Australia. The clerk said he would send it to Angwin. Both of these men were to go into Perth Veterans Hospital for medical procedures shortly after their meeting. The former company clerk did not survive the medical process. When Angwin returned home, the map was waiting for him in the mail. The edges of the map were folded over and stuck down with old tape. He briefly looked at the map, saw that it was of the area where they had carried out the reconnaissance patrol, re-folded the map and put it away with his papers.
My Involvement Begins
The New Britain wartime story reappeared as a small two-column spread in the Brisbane Courier-Mail newspaper at Christmas 1993. I saw the story and it mentioned a “possibility” that the wreckage was Earhart’s Electra. I was then working in the Quality Assurance Department of the Engineering Division of Air Niugini. I have been an Aircraft Engineer nearly all my working life. I was immediately interested in the story as I had previously been involved in searching for wartime wrecks up in Papua New Guinea (PNG). There are still hundreds of aircraft that are missing in New Guinea.
I contacted the curator of the Modern History Museum in Port Moresby on my return to Papua New Guinea and volunteered to join the project. In 1994, there were four Australian veterans from this patrol who were still alive. Today, none are left from the original 20-man patrol. I interviewed the four veterans and have documented their testimony of the patrol and the wreckage. Their stories were also recorded.
Ex-Corporal Donald Angwin passed away in 2000. Don was an extremely likeable fellow and I took to him immediately when I contacted him. I had seen the patrol’s story, and Don’s account was in an unofficial journal that he had written concerning “D” Company of the 11th Battalion, AIF, during the Second World War. I telephoned Don but he could not tell me much more than had been in the journal and he suggested that I contact the patrol ex-Warrant Officer who lived at Yamba on the New South Wales coast. This I did when I went down to the Gold Coast on leave.
I spoke via telephone with the ex-Warrant Officer Keith Nurse in April 1994. Keith comes over as the typical straight-talking warrant officer type – no messing, no rubbish, just straight up and down. What Keith relayed to me was very interesting indeed. He described what could be an Electra three-piece engine nacelle with “ugly” rivets being in the jungle in 1945. This revelation sent me straight back to the Library at Runaway Bay on the Gold Coast for another look at Mary S. Lovell’s book, “The Sound of Wings,” which is comprehensive and contains pictures of the Electra. It was not there but I did find an illustrated book on transports and this book had a two-page colour photograph of an Electra 10A with all the panels removed. There at the front of the picture of the Electra were the three-piece cowlings. When I did see Lovell’s book again, there were the ugly-looking rivets I had remembered and of which Keith had spoken. I was convinced right there and then that the search was worthwhile. However, there was one glaring problem, if the Electra was in New Britain, how could it fly so far beyond its reported range? How could it go out into the Pacific close to Howland Island and return to New Britain. That answer came some months later.
The Map Resurfaces
It was August 1994 and I was due to visit Perth in Western Australia on business – Air Niugini had an aircraft there in need of maintenance. I informed Don Angwin that I would be coming down and at last we could meet. A week or so before I set off, Don had mentioned to his wife that he had nothing to show me in the way of evidence. His wife said that he should give me a copy of the map that the “D” Company Clerk, Len Willoughby, had posted (mailed) to him the year before. Don took out the map and went to a photocopying shop in Perth. Because of the tape around the edges of the map, the machine started to jam and tear the map. The shop assistant stopped the machine and asked Don to remove the tape to allow it to run through without further damage. Don took the map home and gently removed the tape, some came away easily but some were stuck down firm. Writing started to appear as Don removed the tape. The folded edges of the map revealed the now familiar:
GI 1009 Seret ref: 600 H/P. S3H/1 C/N1055 [24/5/45]
Sitrep D Coy Patrol Al
see specil sitreps 58, 59,61, 63, [63A] att. Capt. Mott.
Don rang me in PNG while I was at work and asked me to stand-by the fax machine. A reduced copy of the map came through and my hair stood on end. There was the Electra confirmation right in front of me together with the designation of the engines: C/N 1055 and S3H1. But why did it say 600 H/P (horsepower) when by all accounts, those engines were rated at 550 horsepower? Again, an answer was to come later.
In Perth I met with Don Angwin, Ken Backhouse and Roy Walsh. Of course, Ken had been a lieutenant during the war, and in 1994, he was just out of the hospital and recovering from a heart by-pass operation. Roy was the sergeant in charge of the rearguard on the fateful patrol. We went through the story again, and it transpired that Roy had not seen any sign of the wreckage since he had been too busy with the rearguard activity and had passed through the site without seeing anything. Nonetheless, Roy was to provide important clues later in the discussion. Ken Backhouse did not say much then, content to let Don run the show, but he did mention that he saw the airframe wreckage and it too matched with an Electra. I also met with Greg Dawson, Don’s nephew who owned a documentary film company.
We decided that it was time to organise an expedition and go into the jungle and have a look. This was done in September 1994, with the team comprising MacLaren Hiari from the Papua New Guinea National Museum, Greg, his cameraman, his runner and myself. We went into the nearest airstrip by light aircraft and joined up with a party of local men from the village on the coast then into the search area by boat. We found nothing at that time.
I finally visited the fourth living veteran, Keith Nurse at his home in Yamba in May 1995. This was for a face-to-face interview. He confirmed much of what the others had conveyed.
Things lapsed a little until later in 1995. I was able to form a small group from friends to continue the search for the elusive aircraft. We went into the area in 1995, 1996, 1997, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2004, 2006, 2008, 2011, 2012 and lately 2015. Altogether I have made sixteen trips into the area, mostly two weeks at a time. It has been very expensive to get in there now as the nearest airstrip at Tol Plantation has closed and access is by helicopter. This cuts down the transit time but is very expensive. We have also been to the area by boat. The trip is quite a dangerous excursion on what can be very rough seas off the eastern coast of the Gazelle Peninsula, and is at least a four and a half hour journey by “banana” type boats with low-powered outboard motors.
The Earhart search has occupied my time for twenty-one years. I will now go into an exhaustive review of the evidence from the veterans of what they saw and what the writing on the edge of the wartime map almost certainly means.
A Recounting of the Aircraft Wreckage
In a letter to the author in 2003, the patrol leader, Lieutenant Ken Backhouse wrote:
“The leading section advised that there was an unusual sight looking possibly of an outport [an enemy position] from where we stood. Immediately the platoon was put to ground and I took a covered approach to make sure what it was. On getting closer I realised it was a plane of prewar vintage. Going on I was able to climb onto the port wing and after a quick glance around went forward to the body of the craft and seeing what appeared at that stage a part of the cockpit I then looked for any bones or other human remains. Not seeing anything and noticing that the bottom of the cockpit had secondary growth coming through the fuselage and bearing in mind the approach of night, I made haste to return to the platoon with Keith who had followed and hence resume our track to the river crossing.”
At interview in 1995, the ex-Warrant Officer, Keith Nurse, said he could remember the words “Pratt & Whitney” somewhere while at the crash site but could not remember exactly where he had seen those words. He considered that they may have been on the small metal tag he removed from the metal tubing at the rear of the engine. He further detailed that this tag was tied to the engine mount tubing with wire and he unwound the wire, and read the “string of letters and numbers” on the tag. He finally stuffed the tag in his shirt pocket. The string of letters and numbers did not mean anything to him except as a means of possible identification so he put the tag in his pocket, intending to hand it in to the Company HQ on their return to base. At that point in time, because of the “Pratt & Whitney” notation, Keith considered that the wreckage was American.
The patrol lieutenant and warrant officer at interview in 1994 and 1995 both considered the aircraft was American although the unpainted wreckage bore no military insignia nor did they see any identifying letters or numbers on the wreck itself. Warrant Officer Nurse said that he stayed at the place where the detached engine was located, some 30 metres or so from where Lieutenant Backhouse had gone, he could not recall following Backhouse or seeing the fuselage itself.
Nurse said that the cowl ring had been burst open but: “…strangely, the split edges at the opening were straight and had a row of rivets on each side….”
The Electra front cowl rings were made in three pieces, each covering a 120-degree segment, the whole cowl being round and just under five feet in diameter. This “split” seen, would be where the matching pieces of the segments joined at the sides of the nacelle by latches, as the top join, was held together by screws. The cowling had burst open at one of the side latching points, not at the screwed joint at the top. Each segment has a row of rivets along the horizontal edge.
There were “ugly-looking rivets,” which protruded from the skin surface.
This is correct as the entire opening “ring” of the cowling had a row of dome-headed rivets around the edge of the ring. There were also triangular clusters of dome head rivets at the corners of the joint areas of the cowling that gave an ugly appearance. By the Second World War, the countersunk rivet had been invented and this presents a “flush” appearance on the skin, and does not cause “drag” in an aerodynamic sense. Dome-head rivets cause aerodynamic drag.
The frontal area of the cowl was heavily corroded with finger- sized holes and was so corroded it looked like lacework. “…holed and filigreed” was how the ex-Warrant Officer Keith Nurse described it.
The front cowling on the Electra was not what we now call a “NACA” cowling, which is designed for its high aerodynamic properties. The Electra cowl was rounded at the front, but which would not today be called “aerodynamic” and the design would contribute to aerodynamic drag. This rounded area must have had impinged salt on it to have corroded so badly as the sides of the nacelle were described as not having corrosion on them. This then indicated to me that the cowling was not of a wartime aircraft as the time from January 1942 (the Japanese Invasion of Rabaul) to April 1945 is not sufficient to cause that kind of corrosion if the aircraft had been a wartime aircraft. Also, wartime aircraft were painted and this was seen as a bare metal aircraft. The cowling must have picked up salt from the moist air while at low altitude over the ocean such as taking off from Lae, or at the point where Earhart thought they were near Howland and began searching for the island at 1912 GMT on 2 July 1937.
At the back face of the nacelle, which Nurse described as “a large round metal disc” were some metal tubes which were twisted and torn. He said that these tubes were painted glossy black.
The round metal disc would be the rear face of the firewall and the torn tubing would be part of the “airframe” metal tube truss which, mounted on the front spar of the Electra carried the firewall, the engine mount truss and the engine and propeller. When the engine was ripped out in the impact, it broke off at the airframe truss. The former President of the Amelia Earhart Society has told me that Art Kennedy, an engineer who worked on the Electra during the repairs after the groundloop at Ford Island; painted the engine mount tubing black.
Nurse said that there was yellow paint inside the nacelle on the interior surfaces of the sheetmetal.
This yellow paint would be Yellow Chromate anti-corrosion finish. It is said that both yellow and green chromate finishes were applied to certain components on Electras. Art Kennedy, an Electra engineer, in reply to Bill Prymak, could not recall which colour was used on Earhart’s C/N1055.
The propeller blade was of a narrow chord (width) and was bare aluminum. It was bent backwards over the top of the cowling.
This type of propeller was usually referred to as a “toothpick” type of propeller, and on the Electra the diameter of the propeller circle was nine feet. The Electra used narrow-chord propellers of the “toothpick” type. Wartime aircraft with more powerful engines in the 1200-horsepower group used what are known as “paddle-blade” propellers, and they were usually painted black with yellow tips. The fact that the propeller was bent backwards shows that there was no power on the engine when the aircraft went into the trees. Under engine power, the propeller blades bend forwards as they cleave the trees on impact.
The Warrant Officer looked inside the cowling for any identification but could not see a data plate on the front or rear of the engine. He did find a small metal tag wired to the engine mount tubing at the rear of the engine. He removed the metal tag. “It had letters and numbers on it but they did not mean anything to me, I took the tag with me, to hand in with the patrol report.”
The “normal” place for a data plate (not a free swinging tag) on later Pratt & Whitney “Wasp” engines is on the front crankcase cover in the 4 o/clock position. Earhart’s Electra did not have the plates in this position and it is more likely that they were on the back of the engine on the blower casing. I have seen a 1928 Wasp, a variant designated “S1D1” in a museum and it has the data plate on the blower housing. It is not surprising that a data plate could not be seen in the jungle darkness and inside the cowling.
The words “Pratt & Whitney” or the badge were seen, somewhere, by the Warrant Officer, although he could not remember where.
This could have been on the Pratt & Whitney badge, which was attached to the oil scavenge housing on the front of the engine or from a decal on the cowling or embossed writing on the crankcase. It may have been on the small metal tag he removed also. Nurse said to himself, “This thing is bloody old.” Keith Nurse was in his early twenties at the time.
Corporal Don Angwin, who first saw the engine, thought initially that it was a Japanese gun emplacement and he threw himself to the ground with rifle at the ready. As he focused on the mound in front of him he saw what looked to him like a three or four-inch gun pointed at him. He described it as “a hollow tube pointing at me”. When nothing happened and his mind cleared he could see metal ahead and what looked like an engine. He signalled for the patrol leader to come forward.
What he would have seen would have been the propeller pitch change tube without the front aluminum cover. The aluminum cover disc at the front of the pitch change cylinder (a hollow tube) had either been broken off when the engine hit the trees or had corroded and fallen off (I think the former is more likely). The pitch change tube was a round cylindrical tube, flat at the front with an aluminum cover plate. American wartime engines mostly had cigar tube shaped ends, rounded and sealed at the base flange.
Lieutenant Backhouse left Warrant Officer Nurse to examine the engine and walked forward about thirty metres to another large vine and tree debris covered mound.
Under the vines and tree debris he could see a metal structure and he climbed onto the port (left) wing close to the fuselage. He peered down into what would have been the cockpit area but saw nothing except jungle growth coming through from the bottom. He thought to himself, “I hope there are no poor devils in there.” He described the cockpit area as being all smashed back to where he stood at the front of the wing. The left hand engine was gone but he could see the right hand engine. The aircraft had two engines only. It was a twin-engined aircraft. The right-hand wingtip was bent upwards about ten feet from the tip. The fuselage height where he stood was at belt height. He cannot recall seeing the tail section or whether there were windows down the side of the fuselage. He did see a “round black and shiny” object lying on the wreckage. He also saw some glass. The aircraft had no exterior paint and he did not see any letters or military markings on the wreckage.
The fuselage height at where he stood is correct for an Electra airframe. The left engine would be the one being examined by Nurse. The round black and shiny object is possibly one of the smooth tread balloon type low-pressure tyres, wet with rain. The cockpit area being smashed back would be typical of an Electra going into trees as the frontal area of the Electra was very lightly built and the damage would be stopped at the very large and substantial main spar where he stood. Being covered in leaf debris and vines he would not see “NR16020” on the right hand upper wing surface. The only other chance for seeing numbers or letters would have been the tail section but this was probably ripped off by the trees and lay off to the edge of the site.
The hole in the jungle canopy was described as round and 30 to 40 feet across. Normally when an aircraft goes into trees it leaves an elliptical or teardrop-shaped hole. This aircraft that they saw went into the trees at a steep angle. An Electra running out of gasoline would be a handful to keep in the air because the propellers in the original fitment as was Earhart’s Electra, had propellers which could not be feathered to turn the blades fore and aft so as not to cause high drag with the blades “flat-on” to the airflow.
Copyright 2004 to 2017 David Billings – All Rights Reserved